Supreme Court

With Liu Gone, GOP Still Twisting his Record

On Wednesday night, Berkeley law professor Goodwin Liu wrote to President Obama asking that the his nomination to sit on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals be withdrawn. Liu’s exit was the culmination of two years of smears, scapegoating and filibustering, in which the nominee never even got an up or down vote from the Senate.

The main gist of Republican opposition to Liu was the claim that he would be an “activist judge” in favor of making up constitutional rights willy-nilly (a claim that Republicans in the Senate have lobbed at any number of highly qualified judicial nominees, including current Supreme Court justice Elena Kagan, but interestingly not at Republican nominees who have shown strong streaks of creative legal interpretation).

In an op-ed earlier this week, the New York Times singled out Sen. John Cornyn for his false claim that Liu holds the “ridiculous view that our Constitution somehow guarantees a European-style welfare state.” Yesterday, in a letter to the editor, Cornyn fought back, providing this quote from a 2006 law review article by Liu to back up his claim:

On my account of the Constitution’s citizenship guarantee, federal responsibility logically extends to areas beyond education. ... Beyond a minimal safety net, the legislative agenda of equal citizenship should extend to systems of support and opportunity that, like education, provide a foundation for political and economic autonomy and participation. The main pillars of the agenda would include basic employment supports such as expanded health insurance, child care, transportation subsidies, job training and a robust earned income tax credit.

What is interesting about this quote is that it doesn’t say what Cornyn says it says. At all. Nowhere in the quote -- which Cornyn points to as decisive evidence that Liu wants the courts to turn us into Denmark -- does Liu say that the courts should enforce a social safety net. In fact, Liu is careful to specify that he is discussing the duty of Congress to create a “legislative agenda” that fulfills the highest ideals of the Constitution, rather than a judicial responsibility to enforce that agenda.

Elsewhere in the article [pdf], Liu makes it perfectly clear that he sees it as the duty of Congress, not the courts, to guarantee basic living standards for citizens. He even explicitly states that he intentionally doesn’t use the term “rights” because that would imply “judicial enforceability” of the values that he’s discussing:

In this Article, I do not address whether the Supreme Court or any court should hold that the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees an adequate education. Although that question remains open in the case law, my thesis is chiefly directed at Congress, reflecting the historic character of the social citizenship tradition as “a majoritarian tradition, addressing its arguments to lawmakers and citizens, not to courts.” Whatever the scope of judicial enforcement, the Constitution—in particular, the Fourteenth Amendment—speaks directly to Congress and independently binds Congress to its commands. Thus the approach to constitutional meaning I take here is that of a “conscientious legislator” who seeks in good faith to effectuate the core values of the Fourteenth Amendment, including the guarantee of national citizenship.

From this perspective, the language of rights, with its deep undertone of judicial enforceability, seems inapt to probe the full scope of a legislator’s constitutional obligations. As Professor Sager has observed, “[T]he notion that to be legally obligated means to be vulnerable to external enforcement can have only a superficial appeal.” It is more illuminating to ask what positive duties, apart from corresponding rights, the Fourteenth Amendment entails for legislators charged with enforcing its substantive guarantees. Framed this way, the inquiry proceeds from the standpoint that Congress, unlike a court, is neither tasked with doing legal justice in individual cases nor constrained by institutional concerns about political accountability. Instead, “Congress can draw on its distinctive capacity democratically to elicit and articulate the nation’s evolving constitutional aspirations when it enforces the Fourteenth Amendment.” By mediating conflict and marshaling consensus on national priorities, including the imperatives of distributive justice, Congress can give effect to the Constitution in ways the judicial process cannot.

Thus the legislated Constitution, in contrast to the adjudicated Constitution, is not “narrowly legal” but rather dynamic, aspirational, and infused with “national values and commitments.” …

(emphasis is mine)

Cornyn and his pals in the Senate know what was in the article they attacked. Liu even explained it to them in detail in response to written questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee [pdf]. But it was easier to willfully misinterpret Liu's writing and paint him as irresponsible than to engage in a substantive debate on his qualifications.

 

PFAW

Scalia and Thomas Urge Results-Based Decision

This week, the two most famous arch-conservative Supreme Court Justices openly praised results-based jurisprudence and the legitimacy of bending the law in order to reach the desired result. Coming from Justices who have derided others for allegedly shaping their legal decisions to reach a preferred outcome, this was a jarring example of hypocrisy.

The case of Brown v. Plata involves California's prisons, which are so overcrowded as to violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. A lower court had ordered California to reduce its prison population by tens of thousands of inmates in order to remedy the constitutional violation. In a 5-4 opinion authored by Justice Kennedy and joined in by the four more progressive Justices, the Supreme Court upheld the lower court order.

The opinion frankly acknowledged that the release of prisoners in large numbers "is a matter of undoubted, grave concern." Nevertheless, after a careful analysis of the law, as well as the state's long history of failing to cure the constitutional violation, the majority concluded that there is simply no other realistic way for California to come into compliance with the United States Constitution.

In their dissent Justices Scalia and Thomas quite frankly acknowledged a fondness for results-based jurisprudence:

There comes before us, now and then, a case whose proper outcome is so clearly indicated by tradition and common sense, that its decision ought to shape the law, rather than vice versa. One would think that, before allowing the decree of a federal district court to release 46,000 convicted felons, this Court would bend every effort to read the law in such a way as to avoid that outrageous result.

The law does not exist in a vacuum, and there are circumstances in which common sense and fairness dictate how the law should be interpreted. For instance, in the Ledbetter sex discrimination case, the dissenters correctly looked at the consequences of the majority’s cramped interpretation of the law and saw that it was not in line with the law’s purpose of eliminating sex discrimination in the workplace. Justices Scalia and Thomas joined the flawed majority opinion that ignored the real world impact and thereby violated legislative intent.

The jurisprudence of Justices Scalia and Thomas is littered with, to use their term, "outrageous results" – women who can’t sue for ongoing illegal sex discrimination (Ledbetter), parties whose rights are forever lost because they followed a judge’s incorrect instructions (Bowles v. Russell), or a disabled man who had to crawl up two flights of courthouse stairs who they said could not sue to enforce his rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (Lane v. Tennessee). It sometimes seems that they actually take pride in not caring about the harsh consequences of so many of their decisions. And now Justice Scalia – who once told law students that "[i]f you're going to be a good and faithful judge, you have to resign yourself to the fact that you're not always going to like the conclusions you reach" – is writing that judges' interpretation of the law should be shaped by the result they want? They should bend the law to reach a foreordained conclusion? The hypocrisy is stunning.

Scalia and Thomas and their arch-conservative colleagues are generally more circumspect when they engage in results-based jurisprudence. For instance, with their votes, the Roberts Court has become notorious for regularly bending the law in order to rule in favor of large corporations, as we saw in Citizens United. But it is nevertheless jarring to see these two Supreme Court Justices openly support blatant results-based jurisprudence.

PFAW

Focus on the Family Leader Admits that Right is “Losing” Equality Debate

Jim Daly, president of the Religious Right group Focus on the Family conceded to an interviewer last week that anti-gay groups have “probably lost” the debate over marriage equality. It’s a big admission by a prominent figure on the Right, but it’s also an acknowledgement of what has become common sense. Poll after poll shows that for the first time majorities of Americans support marriage equality, with the highest numbers among young people. As anti-gay legislation is fought out in the courts and in statehouses, it is accompanied by a sea change in public opinion that threatens to make it archaic.

After last summer’s federal court decision striking down California’s Proposition 8, PFAW’s Michael Keegan noticed that Religious Right activists were beginning to admit defeat on gay rights:

This parade of apoplectic anger is nothing new--the Right has fought every step toward acceptance of gay people with similar Armageddon-invoking tirades. What is remarkable about the reaction to the Prop 8 decision is that within the anger are the beginnings of admissions of defeat. The Right has won many important battles against gay rights, but they are losing the war...and they know it.

A few days after Judge Walker's decision, the pseudo-historian David Barton, founder and president of the right-wing group WallBuilders, explicitly described the nervousness that has been behind much of the Right's outrage. The case against Proposition 8, Barton argued, could win in the Supreme Court...so opponents of marriage equality should sacrifice California in order to save anti-equality laws in 31 other states.

"Right now the damage is limited to California only," Barton told Tim Wildmon, President of the American Family Association during a radio interview, "but if California appeals this to the US Supreme Court, the US Supreme Court with Kennedy will go for California, which means all 31 states will go down in flames, although right now this decision is limited only to California...the problem is that instead of California losing its amendment, now 31 states lose their amendment. And that won't happen if California doesn't appeal this.

Last week, I went to a talk with the attorneys arguing the Prop 8 case, Ted Olson and David Boies. Olson said he saw their job as having two parts: presenting the Constitutional case against discrimination in the court of law, and presenting it in the “court of public opinion.”

“If we win this case,” Olson said, “we want people to look at it and say, ‘Of course. It’s about time.’”

Constitutional rights should never be decided by the will of the majority – that’s why we have constitutional rights in the first place. But Olson and Boies are building their case in a country where the rights of gays and lesbians are increasingly accepted as a given. The Religious Right isn’t going to give up its fight against equality anytime soon. But its leaders are beginning to see that they are fighting a losing battle in both the court of law and the court of public opinion.

PFAW

Shameful!

Imagine senators of one party filibustering a judicial nominee who has been hailed as one of his generation’s great legal minds by legal experts of both parties and across the ideological spectrum on the grounds that he is *too* qualified.

Well that's exactly what happened today.

In what could be the most egregious example of the GOP’s partisan obstruction of judicial nominations to date, Senate Republicans today blocked Goodwin Liu from receiving an up or down vote. Liu, a law professor and dean at U.C. Berkeley who as a nominee has the American Bar Association’s highest rating, was nominated for a seat on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals by President Obama over a year ago, and has since been approved by the Judiciary Committee three times.

His credentials and grasp of the law and Constitution are impeccable. Liu’s only mistake: being too qualified.

At age 40, his confirmation to the 9th Circuit could put him in position to be the first Asian American Supreme Court nominee. Because of his intellectual heft, his commitment to Americans’ constitutional rights and his commonsense understanding of how the law impacts people’s lives, the prospect of Liu’s future elevation, and even his influence on a Circuit Court of Appeals, terrifies corporate special interests and right-wing ideologues ... the same people calling the shots with Republican senators.

Shame on them. The concocted justifications Republican senators used in their opposition to Liu were based on unbelievable distortions of his record by Radical Right activist groups, as well as Liu’s testimony in opposition to Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s confirmation. They rested their opposition on lies because they know that a Liu filibuster makes a mockery of the supposed agreement between parties to employ a filibuster only in “extraordinary circumstances.” Everything about Goodwin Liu’s record and the breadth of his support indicates a legal expert squarely in the mainstream -- the only thing “extraordinary” about him is how good he is, and how deserving he was of confirmation.

Every GOP senator except Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski participated in the filibuster. If one or both of your U.S. senators are Republicans, CALL them right now and let them hear it. Tell them, “shame on you for filibustering Goodwin Liu,” and let them know that you will be working hard to hold them accountable in their state.

Make sure you SIGN our “Stop the Obstruction” petition to the Senate and let senators of both parties know that the continued obstruction of the president’s nominees is hurting our country and will not be tolerated.

We need Republicans to feel the pressure about their judicial obstructions just like they are feeling it about their attacks on Medicare. And Democratic leaders in the Senate need to know that they must be using every tool in their arsenal to combat this obstruction.

PFAW

Perhaps No Winners Yet in Supreme Court Pension Case

Last fall, we blogged about the case of CIGNA v. Amara, in which the Supreme Court was being asked to make it harder for employees to hold their employers accountable for providing inaccurate summaries of major changes in their pensions plans. (See our November blog post for more background.) This week, the Supreme Court issued an opinion in the case, ruling for CIGNA 8-0 (with Justice Sotomayor recused), with Justices Scalia and Thomas concurring in the judgment.

Several years ago, CIGNA gave its employees an intentionally misleading summary of a change in its pension plan, one that did not reveal some of its financial disadvantages. Citing a particular provision of ERISA (the Employee Retirement Income Security Act), the 27,000 employees in this pension plan sued. The trial court ruled in their favor and reformed the pension plan to the employees' benefit, a ruling that was upheld by the circuit court. CIGNA appealed to the Supreme Court, positing a legal theory that would have made it significantly harder for wronged employees to recover.

Yesterday, the Court unanimously agreed that the provision of ERISA that the employees were suing under did not authorize the relief granted by the lower courts. Justices Scalia and Thomas would have ended the inquiry there, handing a complete defeat to the workers. However, the majority, in an opinion written by Justice Breyer, ruled that employees may be able to rely on another part of ERISA, a general catch-all provision allowing plaintiffs “to obtain other appropriate equitable relief” for violations of ERISA. The Court remanded the case to the lower court to determine what that relief might be.

The Court also disagreed with CIGNA's extreme view that each individual employee must show that they actually relied on the summary to their detriment – in other words, that they (1) actually read the summary document all those years ago; (2) had no knowledge of plan terms contradicting the summary; and (3) relied on the summary to make a detrimental employment or retirement decision that they would not otherwise have made (e.g., prove that they would have moved to a company with better retirement benefits but for the misleading summary).

Since we don't really know if corporations will ultimately be held responsible to any meaningful degree if they provide misleading summaries of pension plans, whether the opinion was a win for employees or employers depends on who you ask. Bloomberg characterized it as a "partial win" for CIGNA.

Reuters reported:

A U.S. Supreme Court sent an important reminder to retirees this week: you can't necessarily rely on your employer for an accurate description of your pension benefits. ...

Legal experts differed yesterday on whether the ruling was a win for Cigna and other plan sponsors, or for the beneficiaries — although pension advocates were confident the decision ultimately will produce a victory for employees when the lower court ultimately rules.

And as reported in Life and Health Insurance News:

"CIGNA is pleased that the U.S. Supreme Court has ordered the lower court to reconsider its initial decision and undertake further proceedings in the case," CIGNA says in a statement about the ruling.

Ellen Doyle, a Pittsburgh lawyer who helped represent the plan participants in the class-action lawsuit, called the ruling a "significant loss for employees."

PFAW

It's Time to Confirm Goodwin Liu

The Senate is currently debating the nomination of Goodwin Liu to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Liu is a phenomenally well qualified legal scholar who has support across the political spectrum, as well as among a majority of U.S. Senators. However, because Senate Republican leaders are putting politics over all else, they are set on stymieing the majority and filibustering the nomination. A cloture vote to end this stalling tactic may occur as soon as tomorrow morning.

People For the American Way supports the nomination. We sent a letter this morning that says much of what we have been saying in person on the Hill for over a year. Among other things, the letter states:

Perhaps the most powerful testament to Professor Liu's superb qualifications is the extensive support his nomination has garnered from across the ideological spectrum. It is not only progressive and moderate legal thinkers who admire his work: He has received endorsements from conservatives such as Ken Starr, Solicitor General under President Ronald Reagan; Richard Painter, the chief ethics counsel for President George W. Bush; and Clint Bolick, Director of the conservative Goldwater Institute.

When a judicial nominee attracts such strong support independent of political ideology, you can be confident that he is exactly the kind of mainstream, talented, and fair jurist we need on the federal bench.

Although Liu has the support of a majority of senators, his opponents are working to block his nomination from receiving an up or down vote. Their claim is that Liu's nomination constitutes one of those rare "extraordinary circumstances" warranting a filibuster, under the benchmark developed by the Gang of 14 during the George W. Bush Administration.

By no measure can this nomination be considered to even approach "extraordinary circumstances." Even a cursory look at President Bush's nominees who were approved using that test – those whose nominations were not considered to constitute "extraordinary circumstances" – makes clear that Liu's nomination must be permitted to go forward.

  • Pricilla Owen's dissenting positions on the Texas Supreme Court were so extreme that even her fellow conservatives on the Supreme Court in different cases described them with phrases like "an unconscionable act of judicial activism," "disregard of the procedural elements the Legislature established," "def[ying] the Legislature's clear and express limits on our jurisdiction," and "inflammatory rhetoric." Her nomination was not considered extraordinary, and the Senate afforded her an up-or-down vote for a seat on the Fifth Circuit, where she is now serving.
  • Thomas Griffith pushed to severely curtail laws ending discrimination against women and girls' participation in school athletic programs, declaring "illegal" a test upheld by all eight of the nation's Circuit Courts of Appeals that had considered the issue. He was also suspended from the DC Bar for failure to pay mandatory Bar dues yet continued to practice law in the District during that time. Published reports and an examination of Utah law indicated that he had been engaged in the unauthorized practice of law in Utah for the four years prior to his nomination. Nevertheless, the Senate did not consider Griffith's nomination extraordinary, and he received an up-or-down vote confirming him to a seat on the DC Circuit Court of Appeals.
  • Janice Rogers Brown criticized opposition to the Lochner decision, which began the period when the Supreme Court issued its most pro-corporate rulings—rulings that struck down laws requiring minimum wages, regulating working hours and conditions, and banning improper business practices. In addition, despite several Supreme Court rulings to the contrary, she explicitly suggested that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act is unconstitutional. Despite this record, her nomination was not considered an "extraordinary circumstance," and the Senate was allowed to cast an up-or-down vote, confirming her to the DC Circuit Court of Appeals.
  • William Pryor called Roe v. Wade "the worst abomination of constitutional law in our history" and urged Congress to consider repealing or amending Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Despite the significant opposition that these and other extreme positions garnered, his nomination was not filibustered, and he was confirmed to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

Each of these nominees attracted substantial controversy and was opposed by numerous civil rights and civil liberties groups, but not one was found to constitute "extraordinary circumstances."

The claim that Goodwin Liu is out of the mainstream as compared to any of these nominees simply does not bear scrutiny. In fact, a fair reading of his work makes clear that Liu is well within the judicial mainstream.

By any standard articulated by either party, Goodwin Liu's nomination deserves a vote on the Senate floor, and he should be confirmed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Tomorrow, we will learn which Republican senators are willing to toss logic, consistency, principles, and the good of the nation's court system out the window in order to score political points against a Democratic president.

PFAW

New Corporate-Funded ‘Super PAC’ Created By The Man Who Helped Make Citizens United Possible

GOP activist James Bopp Jr. has played a critical role in eviscerating campaign finance regulations throughout his career as a Republican attorney. He successfully argued in FEC v. Wisconsin Right to Life that Congress couldn’t prevent corporations from using money from their general treasuries on so-called “issue ads,” and he initially represented the right-wing group Citizens United in the landmark case that ushered in massive corporate involvement in politics (although he did not argue the case in Supreme Court).

After fighting for the power of corporations to increase their already-substantial role in public affairs, now Bopp is launching a pro-GOP political group that seeks to cash-in on the glut of corporate money. Stephanie Mencimer of Mother Jones reports that Bopp is one of the founders of the newly formed Republican Super PAC and is set to expand corporate involvement in politics to an even greater degree by having candidates participate in the fundraising for undisclosed corporate dollars:

"The different thing here with our PAC is that we are going to harness the political fundraising of candidates and parties," he says. He explains that the committee will allow candidates and parties to fundraise for their campaigns and party organs at the same time they solicit unlimited, anonymous contributions to the super PAC.

Here's how it works: Say House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) approaches the CEO of Exxon for a contribution to his reelection campaign. Under federal law, the CEO can only give Boehner $2,500. In the past, that’s the end of the conversation. But Bopp's plan envisions Boehner and his campaign asking that same donor—and his company—to pony up more money, as much as he wants, for the Republican Super PAC. The donor can even specify that the money be spent supporting Boehner or attacking his opponent. Then Bopp's PAC can buy ads, send out mailings, canvass neighborhoods, and do all the other things a political campaign typically does on Boehner’s behalf.



The Republican Super PAC is the logical outgrowth of Citizens United and a series of other recent court decisions that have overturned long-standing restrictions on corporate campaign spending. Bopp says these rulings allow his new group to go into uncharted campaign finance terrain. "This is perfectly legal," Bopp insists.
PFAW

The Unwelcome Return of the Newt

After more than a dozen years out of office, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich jumped into the GOP presidential campaign this week, rolling out his candidacy via social media and a friendly interview with Fox News Channel's Sean Hannity. Gingrich thinks he's just what is needed to save America from itself and its flirtation with Barack Obama and the rest of the evil of what he calls the "secular-socialist machine."

Much of the media attention of Gingrich's candidacy has centered around his role in the 1995 government shutdown, which Gingrich alone seems to think was a great success for the GOP, and his more recent urging of congressional Republicans not to fear a repeat. The implication seems to be that if you're the kind of voter who wants a more combative conservative willing to take down the federal government in order to bring down deficits, Newt may be your guy. But that kind of discussion -- and the crazily early poll-watching "which tier is he in?" stories -- miss something more important. Let's remind ourselves what kind of person Newt Gingrich is, and what kind of impact he has had on our public life.

Gingrich hasn't exactly been in hiding. In fact, he is at the center of his own machine, a 24/7 festival of self-promotion that includes an emailed "Newt and Callista Weekly Recap" courtesy of Gingrich Productions. If self-promotion were the top trait Americans were looking for in a president, Gingrich would be a shoo-in. But the job requires a bit more than that. People For the American Way's Right Wing Watch, Mother Jones and Media Matters have already posted compilations of Newtonian 'wisdom' from a long and dishonorable career. Once you start to consider characteristics like honesty and integrity, it becomes clear that Gingrich is unfit to lead our country.

The Newt McCarthyism

Gingrich is an enthusiastic participant in the right wing's divisive and destructive McCarthyism, portraying his political opponents as enemies of America's very existence. In To Save America, Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine, he warns, "America as we know it is now facing a mortal threat... The secular-socialist machine represents as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union once did... It's up to those of us who love our country to save America from the destructive, irreversible transformation that the Left have in store for us." In Real Change: The Fight for America's Future, he claims that the Obama administration (that would be the Faith-Based Initiative-continuing, National Prayer Day-celebrating, Easter Breakfast-sponsoring Obama administration) "has shown an unprecedented hostility to Christianity." He promotes ridiculous Religious Right claims about religious persecution in America, saying that Christians are threatened by "gay and secular fascism."

Gingrich spoke this spring at the Texas church led by John Hagee, whose support proved too controversial for John McCain in 2008. Newt combined two of his favorite threats, secularists and Islamists, into one memorable, if intellectually incoherent, sentence, declaring that he feared that his grandchildren could grow up "in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American." He told the Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody, "In a sense, our Judeo-Christian civilization is under attack from two fronts. On one front, you have a secular, atheist, elitism. And on the other front, you have radical Islamists. And both groups would like to eliminate our civilization if they could. For different reasons, but with equal passion."

Newt is also placing himself at the forefront of the concerted conservative campaign to turn "American exceptionalism" into an attack on the patriotism of their political opponents. Candidates like Sen. Marco Rubio made American exceptionalism into a campaign theme in 2010, and hope to continue to smear Democrats as unbelievers in America's divinely-blessed founding and mission in the world. Gingrich has teamed up with Citizens United's David Bossie for a new "documentary" on American exceptionalism, A City Upon a Hill, The Spirit of American Exceptionalism, which features, among others, Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Allen West, Andrew Breitbart and Phyllis Schlafly.

Gingrich, an old hand at politics-by-smear, is responsible for much of the venomous state of our politics. In the mid-1990s, his GOPAC distributed to Republican lawmakers a memo titled "Language: a Key Mechanism of Control." The memo urged Republicans to use a set of denigrating words to describe their opponents and the Democratic Party: "decay, failure (fail) collapse(ing) deeper, crisis, urgent(cy), destructive, destroy, sick, pathetic, lie, liberal, they/them, unionized bureaucracy, 'compassion' is not enough, betray, consequences, limit(s), shallow, traitors, sensationalists, endanger, coercion, hypocricy, radical, threaten, devour, waste, corruption, incompetent, permissive attitude, destructive, impose, self-serving, greed, ideological, insecure, anti-(issue): flag, family, child, jobs; pessimistic, excuses, intolerant, stagnation, welfare, corrupt, selfish, insensitive, status quo, mandate(s) taxes, spend (ing) shame, disgrace, punish (poor...) bizarre, cynicism, cheat, steal, abuse of power, machine, bosses, obsolete, criminal rights, red tape, patronage."

Religious Liberty: Hypocrisy and Bad History

Gingrich, like other Religious Right political figures, postures as a defender of Americans' religious liberty against a deeply hostile elite, the "secular-socialist machine." Yet he joined with gusto the opponents of the proposed Park51 Islamic community center in Manhattan, which right-wing activists vilified as the "Ground Zero Mosque," saying, "There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia." In his book, Rediscovering God in America, Gingrich declared, "A steadfast commitment to religious freedom is the very cornerstone of American liberty." Regarding the Islamic center in New York, he said, "No mosque. No self-deception. No surrender."

Gingrich, like other Religious Right leaders, justifies his attacks on Islam by suggesting that it is not really a religion, saying radical Islam "is a comprehensive political, economic, and religious movement that seeks to impose sharia -- Islamic law -- upon all aspects of global society... Radical Islamists see politics and religion as inseparable in a way it is difficult for Americans to understand. Radical Islamists assert sharia's supremacy over the freely legislated laws and values of the countries they live in and see it as their sacred duty to achieve this totalitarian supremacy in practice." Yet while Gingrich decries radical Islamists' goal of achieving "totalitarian supremacy," one of his own organizations, Renewing American Leadership, is run by an advocate of the 7 Mountains Mandate, a dominionist theology that argues that Christians are meant to control the levers of power in every aspect of government and society.

Gingrich is ideologically joined at the hip to "Christian nation" pseudo-historian David Barton. In Barton's worldview, the First Amendment is not about protecting religious pluralism, but was only meant to keep the federal government from siding with one group of Christians over another. Barton believes the First Amendment should not apply at all to the states, but that states should be free to pose religious tests for office, and local religious majorities should be free to use public schools for proselytizing prayer. On Barton's radio show, Gingrich promised that if he ran, he would be calling on Barton for help, presumably the way Barton helped turn out evangelical voters for the Republican Party during George W. Bush's reelection campaign. It seems to be a mutual admiration society. When Barton and other right-wing activists were pushing for changes in Texas textbooks, they urged that Cesar Chavez and Thurgood Marshall be dropped, but that Newt be added.

Gingrich shares Barton's view of the federal courts as evil usurpers of the founding fathers' religious intentions. "There is no attack on American culture more destructive and more historically dishonest than the secular Left's relentless effort to drive God out of America's public square," Gingrich wrote in Rediscovering God in America. In a recent speech to the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, Gingrich said the courts have been "especially powerful engines of coerced secularization," and that "From the 1962 school prayer decision on, there has been a decisive break with the essentially religious nature of historic American civilization." While in Congress, Gingrich promoted the Religious Right's false claims that courts had somehow banned students from praying, and repeatedly supported efforts to pass a constitutional amendment to return organized prayer to public schools.

Politics over Principle

In addition to intellectual arrogance, a shameless lack of principle may be Gingrich's most identifying characteristic. When the popular uprisings in the Middle East spread to Libya, Gingrich denounced President Obama for not immediately imposing a no-fly zone: "We don't need to have the United Nations. All we have to say is that we think that slaughtering your own citizens is unacceptable and that we're intervening." Less than two weeks later, when the U.S. joined other nations in imposing a no-fly zone, Gingrich attacked Obama, saying "I would not have intervened" and declaring that "it is impossible to make sense of the standard for intervention in Libya except opportunism and news media publicity." Newt clearly knows a thing or two about opportunism and publicity-seeking; getting some coverage for an attack on Obama was clearly more important to him than questions of U.S. policy in Libya.

Hubris

For all the far-right's charges that President Obama harbors anti-democratic tendencies -- Gingrich vowed to Hannity that he would abolish all the White House "czar" positions by executive order -- Gingrich's own behavior has made it clear that he sees himself as so superior to others, such an essential treasure for the nation, that the rules he would apply to others should not apply to him. When his second wife asked Newt how he could give a speech about the importance of family values just days after he admitted that he was having an affair, he reportedly told her, "It doesn't matter what I do. People need to hear what I have to say. There's no one else who can say what I can say. It doesn't matter what I live." That is a breathtaking level of hubris, even by presidential candidate standards. And when the CBN's Brody lobbed him the fluffiest of softballs by asking him to talk about his affairs in the context of his experience of God's forgiveness, Newt blew it by blaming his cheating on his love of country: "There's no question at times of my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate."

So Right and So Wrong

Gingrich's policy positions are pretty much standard fare in today's far-right Republican Party, including anti-worker, pro-corporate economic policies and support for criminalizing abortion. He has demonstrated his new-found commitment to the sacred nature of marriage by trying to buy the support of Religious Right activists in presidentially important Iowa, where he funneled about $200,000 into an unfortunately successful campaign to punish and purge three state Supreme Court justices who had voted to end marriage discrimination against same-sex couples in the state.

America is grappling with a set of deeply serious challenges at home and abroad. Americans would benefit from a substantive discussion of those problems and the policy choices that face them. What they're most likely to get from Newt Gingrich is toxic McCarthyism, petty and unprincipled partisanship, and preening self-promotion. Thanks but no thanks.

Cross posted on The Huffington Post

PFAW

Judges Regard Arguments Against Healthcare's Constitutionality With Healthy Skepticism

The constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act is once again in the news, as a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments yesterday on the constitutionality of the healthcare reform law. As reported by the Los Angeles Times:

Lawyers for Virginia struggled to explain how the state had the legal standing to challenge the healthcare mandate on behalf of its citizens. The judges said precedent did not permit states to sue on behalf of their citizens to contest federal laws.

But standing was not a problem in a second case, where lawyers for Liberty University sued on behalf of several individuals. Both lawsuits said a requirement in the new law that everyone purchase healthcare was a violation of the Constitution. ...

By their comments, members of the panel of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals sounded as though they would reverse that decision and say Virginia Atty. Gen. Ken Cuccinelli had no standing to challenge the law.

Liberty University lost its lawsuit in federal District Court and appealed to the 4th Circuit. Mathew Staver, their lawyer, said Congress could regulate commerce but not "idleness." In this instance, he referred to the refusal of his clients to purchase health insurance.

But the judges didn't sound persuaded. They noted the Supreme Court had said Congress had broad power to regulate a national market, and the mandate was an attempt to regulate insurance. It is a "practical power," Judge Davis said, to regulate effectively.

Perhaps the judges did not sound persuaded because the far right's legal argument is so weak. It cannot be repeated too often that many of those caterwauling most loudly that the healthcare law is unconstitutional were expressing the exact opposite opinion before the corporate-funded Tea Party arose. In fact, the individual mandate was a Republican idea and originally championed by many of those who now claim that it is an unconstitutional usurpation of power by the federal government. Senators Orrin Hatch and Charles Grassley – who co-sponsored legislation during the Clinton Administration that featured an individual mandate – are among the many who have shamelessly flip-flopped on the issue.

Adding to the shamelessness, Mat Staver was one of the attorneys arguing before the court today that the law is unconstitutional. His extremism has long been reported in Right Wing Watch.

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PFAW's Peter Montgomery Discusses the First Amendment, Citizens United and David Barton

Yesterday, PFAW’s Peter Montgomery appeared on New York’s WVOX Radio, joining The Advocates host Richard Garfunkel to discuss the American values reflected in the First Amendment. With a particular focus on the Establishment Clause and freedom of speech, Peter talked about some of the threats against the Constitution being launched by the Religious Right—including the effort by sham historian David Barton to chip away at the separation of church and state by baselessly implying that the Founding Fathers imagined America as a Christian Nation. Peter also discussed the implications of Supreme Court’s decision in Citizen’s United, which opened the floodgates for a new outpouring of secret money in the political process.

You can listen to the full interview here:

 

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Barton Hits the Big Time, Brings His Made-Up History Lessons With Him

It’s been a big couple of days for the Right’s favorite self-declared historian, David Barton. Last night, he went on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart to try to defend his shoddy scholarship to a national audience – which he did, mostly, by flatly denying things that are demonstrably true.

And this morning, Barton was the subject of a profile in the New York Times, mildly titled “Using History to Mold Ideas on the Right.” The problem, of course, is that Barton’s version of history is not one that most Americans, and most historians, would recognize:

“The problem with David Barton is that there’s a lot of truth in what he says,” said Derek H. Davis, director of church-state studies at Baylor University, a Baptist institution in Waco, Tex. “But the end product is a lot of distortions, half-truths and twisted history.”

Mr. Barton says it is his critics who cherry-pick history by underplaying the religious dimension. Over the years, he has only dug more deeply into his documents, filling out books like “Original Intent” (published by WallBuilders, his organization here).

One of his most contested assertions is that the Supreme Court has misconstrued Thomas Jefferson’s statement that the First Amendment erected a “wall of separation between church and state.” According to Mr. Barton, Jefferson meant that government should not interfere with the public exercise of religion — not that public spaces should be purged of prayer. He also cites biblical passages that, he says, argue against deficit spending, graduated income taxes, the minimum wage and costly measures to fight global warming.

People For explored Barton’s history of twisting the bible and historical documents for political purposes in the recent report, “Barton’s Bunk.”

We’ll also be posting fact-checks of Barton’s interview with Jon Stewart throughout the day at Right Wing Watch.

In case you missed it, here’s People For’s Peter Montgomery giving a Barton primer on the Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell:

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

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The Corporate Court Strikes Again: By 5-4, Supreme Court Undermines Class Action Consumer Protection Suits

Yesterday at the Supreme Court, the five conservative Justices on the Corporate Court handed corporate interests even greater control than before over Americans' daily lives. In AT&T v. Concepcion, a narrow 5-4 majority used a federal arbitration law in a way wholly alien to its intent: to undermine state consumer protection laws across the country. Even worse, under yesterday’s precedent, employers may now be able to easily cut off anti-discrimination enforcement through class action lawsuits – often the only way to address employment discrimination – by simply refusing to hire anyone who does not agree to resolve future conflicts through arbitration clauses that contain a ban on class action.

This case started when AT&T allegedly scammed thousands of customers by offering a "free" second phone, then charging them for the taxes on the undiscounted price of the phone. One of its victims brought a class action suit against the company. However, AT&T had a service contract where consumers had to agree to resolve any future claims against the cell phone company through arbitration, rather than the courts. In addition, customers had to agree not to participate in any class action against the telecommunications giant. So AT&T asked the court to enforce the agreement it had imposed upon the Concepcions by throwing out the class action suit and forcing them into arbitration, one lone family against AT&T suing for a few dollars without the protections of courts of law or neutral judges.

Under California law, the contractual prohibition against class action is so outrageous as to be illegal. California recognizes that such provisions effectively protect companies from being held liable for their transgressions and that they are able to force them upon consumers only because of the corporations’ vastly superior bargaining position.

But the Roberts Court said this state protection of consumers is preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act, which generally encourages courts to compel arbitration in accordance with the terms of arbitration agreements.

Many of us have gotten incomprehensible bills from giant telecom companies with relatively small charges for services never ordered, or mysterious taxes or fees that the company should not be charging. Unfortunately, the vast majority of consumers who are cheated in these situations don't even realize it. Moreover, because the amounts at issue are relatively small, there is little incentive for consumers to undertake the significant expenses of recovering their loss. Even when the company pays out to the tiny percentage of defrauded customers who go to the trouble to engage in lone arbitration against the company, the overall scheme remains profitable.

That is why class actions are so important. They allow the entire universe of cheated consumers to recoup their losses, making possible the deterrent effect of a potentially significant financial loss to the deceptive corporation. In ruling for AT&T, the Roberts Court has devastated state-level consumer protections like California’s and essentially given corporations an instruction manual on how to commit rampant fraud against consumers. Beyond that, using the same interpretation of the Federal Arbitration Act, employers may be able to evade class-action discrimination lawsuits as well, putting all workers at risk.

Fortunately, unlike Citizens United, this Corporate Court gift to Big Business rests on an interpretation of a statute, not the Constitution. In other words, Congress can fix this problem with a simple bill. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy has already called on Congress to do just that.

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Executive Order to Slightly Lessen Citizen's United Damage

An executive order is in the works that would alleviate, albeit very slightly, the severe damage caused by the Supreme Court's decision in Citizen’s United . The Obama Administration plans to require government contractors to disclose their political donations in an effort to improve transparency by showing taxpayers where their money is ultimately being spent, and to eliminate any illusion of contractors engaging in pay-to-play politics.

Republicans are crying foul in an effort to maintain the considerable fundraising advantage they've developed in a system dominated by shadowy interest groups  who can now spend freely on campaign ads. But considering that federal agencies spent about $535 billion of taxpayer money on contractors last year alone, it is reasonable to wonder how much of that money is spent on helping to elect the people who make the decisions about who gets government contracts.

Polls have shown that at least three-quarters of Americans are in favor of correcting the Citizen’s United decision and limiting the staggering influence of corporate interests in elections. This executive order may be a small step in the right direction, but it highlights the urgent need for Congress to revisit the DISCLOSE Act and other legislative remedies as well as a constitutional amendment to ensure our right to fair and transparent elections.

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Citizens United Freed Corporations to Politically Pressure Employees

The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC, which allowed corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on politicking, has caused ripples of sometimes unexpected consequences – from the toppling of long-established state laws to the rise of secretive corporate spending groups that operate outside the reach of disclosure laws. Now The Nation has uncovered another destructive consequence of the decision:

On the eve of the November midterm elections, Koch Industries sent an urgent letter to most of its 50,000 employees advising them on whom to vote for and warning them about the dire consequences to their families, their jobs and their country should they choose to vote otherwise.

The Nation obtained the Koch Industries election packet for Washington State [1]—which included a cover letter from its president and COO, David Robertson; a list of Koch-endorsed state and federal candidates; and an issue of the company newsletter, Discovery, full of alarmist right-wing propaganda.

Legal experts interviewed for this story called the blatant corporate politicking highly unusual, although no longer skirting the edge of legality, thanks to last year’s Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which granted free speech rights to corporations.

“Before Citizens United, federal election law allowed a company like Koch Industries to talk to officers and shareholders about whom to vote for, but not to talk with employees about whom to vote for,” explains Paul M. Secunda, associate professor of law at Marquette University. But according to Secunda, who recently wrote in The Yale Law Journal Online about the effects of Citizens United on political coercion in the workplace, the decision knocked down those regulations. “Now, companies like Koch Industries are free to send out newsletters persuading their employees how to vote. They can even intimidate their employees into voting for their candidates.” Secunda adds, “It’s a very troubling situation.”

The Kochs were major supporters of the Citizens United case; they were also chief sponsors of the Tea Party and major backers of the anti-“Obamacare” campaign. Through their network of libertarian think tanks and policy institutes, they have been major drivers of unionbusting campaigns in Wisconsin, Michigan and elsewhere.

“This sort of election propaganda seems like a new development,” says UCLA law professor Katherine Stone, who specializes in labor law and who reviewed the Koch Industries election packet for The Nation. “Until Citizens United, this sort of political propaganda was probably not permitted. But after the Citizens United decision, I can imagine it’ll be a lot more common, with restrictions on corporations now lifted.”

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Supreme Court Seems Likely to Throw Out Global Warming Case

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in a high-profile global-warming case: American Electric Power v. Connecticut. At issue is whether and how courts can hold corporate polluters accountable for the planetary climate damage they are causing.

Several states have sued power producers on the basis that they are creating a public nuisance. Instead of being tied to a specific federal statute or regulation, their claim is based on the common law of nuisance, which has been part of our legal system for centuries. (Common law is law developed over time by the courts in the absence of specific legislation or executive rules.) The Second Circuit ruled that the lawsuit could proceed on this theory, and the power companies appealed. However, as the Wall Street Journals reports:

The Supreme Court appeared deeply skeptical Tuesday about allowing states to sue electric utilities to force cuts in greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

Both conservative and liberal justices questioned whether a federal judge could deal with the complex issue of global warming, a topic they suggested is better left to Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency.

An additional factor arising since the lawsuit began several years ago is a change in the EPA’s stance. When the lawsuit began, the EPA claimed it lacked the authority to regulate greenhouse gases. Now, having been corrected by the Supreme Court, the agency is deciding whether to adopt rules affecting facilities like the ones at issue in this case. Such regulations would, if adopted, trump the common law.

Why let the lawsuit go forward, when "the agency is engaged in it right now?" said Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The lawyer representing the states acknowledged that the case was before the high court at a "peculiar moment," but said the court should block the lawsuit only if the EPA actually issues regulations. ...

Lawyers for the companies and the administration focused on the enormity of the climate change issue to argue against the lawsuit.

"You have never heard a case like this before," Neal Katyal, the acting U.S. Solicitor General, said. The term global warming, Katyal said, "tells you all you need to know."

The Justices seem likely to rule that the legislative and executive branches should address the issues raised in this case. That will serve the interests of giant corporations with a financial stake in the status quo, who, due to Citizens United, have an undue and growing influence over who populates those branches.

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The Story From Wisconsin: Big Defeat For Walker

A lot of people are feeling pretty good in Wisconsin right now, but Governor Scott Walker probably isn’t one of them.

Last night, his hand-picked successor to become Milwaukee County Executive (the office Walker left when he became governor) was crushed by a 22 point margin. And this morning Joanne Kloppenburg declared victory over State Supreme Court Justice David Prosser, a conservative activist who tied himself to Walker’s agenda.

While Wisconsin judicial elections are officially nonpartisan, Prosser is well known as a Republican who was quickly associated with Scott Walker. People in the state then began to realize that electing Joanne Kloppenburg to the bench to replace Justice Prosser would shift the 4-3 conservative majority to a 4-3 liberal leaning court, thereby affecting how the highest court in the state might rule when Walker’s law inevitably arrives at their doorstep for review.

In no time flat, the election took on huge significance as the contest turned into a referendum wherein voters could express their favor or displeasure with Walker’s anti-collective bargaining legislation while affecting the ideological bend of the court that will likely be the final word on the legality of Walker’s law.

With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Kloppenburg scored a 204 vote victory. Close? You bet, but that’s cold comfort for Scott Walker and the Wisconsin GOP who might be feeling a twinge of regret for pushing their extreme anti-worker agenda.

One would think that other Republicans would learn some lessons from this defeat and tap down their extremism a bit. In Washington, at least, that doesn’t seem to be happening.

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Pro-Corporate Groups Spend Millions To Save Walker’s Preferred Justice In Wisconsin

Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser was supposed to win reelection in a walk, after winning a February primary with 55% of the vote. Prosser, a former Republican state assemblyman, faced JoAnne Kloppenburg, who previously served as the state’s assistant attorney general and came in second in the primary. But Governor Scott Walker’s brazen push to bust unions and implement an ultraconservative political agenda spurred the progressive community into action, and Walker’s popularity plummeted.

Many of the Wisconsinites who are outraged over the right-wing policies pursued by Walker and the Republican-controlled legislature, rallied to Kloppenburg’s side. Walker allies feared the potential defeat of Prosser, who called himself “a common sense complement to both the new [Walker] administration and Legislature.”

While there are just a few hundred votes separating the two candidates, guaranteeing a recount, last-minute spending by right-wing organizations helped salvage Prosser’s flagging campaign.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice of New York University, which monitors spending in judicial elections, pro-corporate groups have greatly outspent progressive organizations. The Brennan Center found that spending in the race passed the $3.5 million mark, with most of the spending benefiting Prosser.

While the Greater Wisconsin Committee ran ads against Prosser’s reelection, pro-corporate organizations such as the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (an amalgamate of the Wisconsin State Chamber of Commerce and the Wisconsin Manufacturers Association), the Club for Growth, Citizens for a Strong America, and the Tea Party Express have flooded the state with ads supporting Prosser and berating Kloppenburg.

As of Monday, the four groups which backed Prosser spent a combined $2,177,220, but the Greater Wisconsin Committee spent $1,363,040. The final spending figures have not yet been tallied.

Citizens for a Strong America, a front group for the Koch Brothers-financed Americans for Prosperity, ran an ad so erroneous that the nonpartisan group PolitiFact gave it a “pants on fire” rating. Even the far-right Family Research Council added to the smear campaign, attacking Kloppenburg, who worked as assistant attorney general since 1989, as inexperienced in advertisements on thirty-four Wisconsin radio stations.

With a recount pending, Kloppenburg’s come-from-behind campaign shows the ability of progressives in states like Wisconsin to overcome the corporate juggernaut that is able to spend almost limitless amounts of money to support its favored candidates.

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Roberts Court Leaves State’s Church/State Money Laundering Scheme Intact

A closely divided Supreme Court issued a seriously flawed decision today in Arizona Christian Tuition v. Winn, using constitutional sleight of hand to get around the Establishment Clause's prohibition against the use of public funds for religious purposes and to frustrate Americans' ability to go to court when the constitutional guarantee of church-state separation is violated.

Here's the background to the case, which involves the state of Arizona's program to support religious schools.

States are constitutionally prohibited from directly supporting religious education. So Arizona figured out a way to try to get around that inconvenient First Amendment by setting up a system where that money goes to the religious organization before it gets to the treasury.

Arizona has a program where taxpayers get dollar-for-dollar tax credits for money they give to "school tuition organizations" (STOs), nonprofit organizations that award private school scholarships to children. Many of the STO awards actually require parents to send their children to religious schools as a condition of receipt.

So an Arizonan can take a certain amount of money that he owes in taxes and instead give it to a religious STO to pay for someone's religious education. As Justice Kagan said during oral arguments, Arizona established the program so STOs, acting as state intermediaries, could "make distinctions that the state itself cannot make."

Essentially, the state has set up a money laundering scheme to get around the Establishment Clause.

However, before the Court could address the program's constitutionality, it first had to determine if the taxpayer plaintiffs have standing to sue. The Constitution prohibits federal courts from hearing a case unless the plaintiff has a personal stake in the outcome. Simply being a taxpayer generally does not give you such a personal stake. However, in the Flast v. Cohen decision of 1968, the Supreme Court recognized that federal taxpayers do have such a stake when they challenge Congressional spending.

The Roberts Court today ignored common sense and the reasoning of Flast and concluded that Arizona state taxpayers don't have standing to bring this case to federal court. As they did in the 2007 Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation case, the five conservatives acted to prevent courts from enforcing the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

According to the Roberts Court, there is no government spending here to contest. Instead, it is simply a series of independent spending decisions made by private citizens who are spending their own money, not the government's.

This is constitutional sleight of hand at its worst, which Justice Kagan pointed out in dissent. As she noted, the majority is making an arbitrary distinction between cash grants and targeted tax breaks for the purposes of standing: Either way, the government has financed religious activity, so either way, taxpayers should be able to challenge the subsidy.

Since there are times when no one other than taxpayers has suffered the injury necessary to challenge government sponsorship of religion, the majority opinion "will diminish the Establishment Clause's force and meaning." The dissent continued:

"The Court opinion thus offers a roadmap – more truly, just a one-step instruction – to any government that wishes to insulate its financing of religious activity from legal challenge. Structure the funding as a tax expenditure, and Flast will not stand in the way. No taxpayer will have standing to object. However blatantly the government may violate the Establishment Clause, taxpayers cannot gain access to the federal courts."

It is a good day for the religious right, and a bad one for the United States Constitution and the rule of law.

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A Defense of Academic Freedom in Wisconsin

The University of Wisconsin has responded to the state GOP's request for the e-mails of Professor William Cronon relating to the clash over collective bargaining in that state. This was the opening salvo in a series of such requests to bully and intimidate university professors.

Talking Points Memo reports that the University has complied with the request, paying due respect to protecting academic freedom, among other values:

We are excluding records involving students because they are protected under [federal law]. We are excluding exchanges that fall outside the realm of the faculty member's job responsibilities and that could be considered personal pursuant to Wisconsin Supreme Court case law. We are also excluding what we consider to be the private email exchanges among scholars that fall within the orbit of academic freedom and all that is entailed by it. Academic freedom is the freedom to pursue knowledge and develop lines of argument without fear of reprisal for controversial findings and without the premature disclosure of those ideas.

Chancellor Biddy Martin also posted a message to the campus community to help ensure that academic freedom would not be chilled by the Republicans' assault:

Scholars and scientists pursue knowledge by way of open intellectual exchange. Without a zone of privacy within which to conduct and protect their work, scholars would not be able to produce new knowledge or make life-enhancing discoveries. Lively, even heated and acrimonious debates over policy, campus and otherwise, as well as more narrowly defined disciplinary matters are essential elements of an intellectual environment and such debates are the very definition of the Wisconsin Idea.

When faculty members use email or any other medium to develop and share their thoughts with one another, they must be able to assume a right to the privacy of those exchanges, barring violations of state law or university policy. Having every exchange of ideas subject to public exposure puts academic freedom in peril and threatens the processes by which knowledge is created. The consequence for our state will be the loss of the most talented and creative faculty who will choose to leave for universities where collegial exchange and the development of ideas can be undertaken without fear of premature exposure or reprisal for unpopular positions.

To the extent that the GOP hoped to find evidence that Professor Cronon was using state computers to engage in partisan political activities, they're out of luck:

We have dutifully reviewed Professor Cronon's records for any legal or policy violations, such as improper uses of state or university resources for partisan political activity. There are none.

But this should not be the end of the story. As we have noted previously, this incident should not be viewed in isolation. If the party officials involved with this are not held accountable for their overreach, this incident will do long-term damage. Continuing party support for those who undermine the foundations of our free society significantly lowers the bar for what departures from the principles of democracy are now acceptable.

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The Right's Use of Records Requests to Chill Dissent and Attack Academics

In Wisconsin and Michigan, we are seeing what appears to be the latest right wing tool to intimidate and harass its critics: extensive – and baseless – public records requests against academics at public universities. The consequences for the free and open debate on which our democracy depends are serious indeed.

Last week, Wisconsin Republicans clamped down on criticisms of their party's efforts to undermine workers' rights by filing a broad demand for copies of all of the emails of University of Wisconsin-Madison history professor William Cronon that mention Governor Scott Walker, the eight Republican state senators who have been targeted for recall, or unions that represent government employees. Cronon had recently penned a blog post calling attention to the work of a little-known group called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and its apparently significant influence on Republican state lawmakers, including those in Wisconsin such as Governor Walker. The message was clear. Criticize what we do and we'll come after you to see what we can dig up to smear you with.

Any thought that this might be an isolated response was quickly shattered when similar requests were made for Wisconsin-related e-mails at three Michigan universities. Rather than being from the Wisconsin GOP, these were from a right-wing organization called the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. They filed requests for e-mails of the faculty of the University of Michigan Labor Studies Center, the Douglas A. Fraser Center for Workplace Issues at Wayne State University, and the Labor Education Program of Michigan State University. The requests cover not only e-mails relating to the Wisconsin clash over the labor rights, but, according to press reports, also any e-mails mentioning Rachel Maddow.

Aside from their far right conservative ideologies, the Mackinac Center and ALEC have something else in common: Although not well known among the general public, they are part of a network of right wing ideological organizations that have been heavily funded over the years by many of the same small group of wealthy funders, including the billionaire Koch Brothers, the Coors family, the Scaife family, and corporate giant Exxon Mobil.

It is not likely a coincidence that these two right wing organizations employed the same unusual tactics in two different states just days apart. Who knows where they will go next. Clearly this is a pattern. And, unfortunately, it's a familiar one. Just as in the McCarthy era, academics face intimidation and harassment and possible threats to their reputations if they take public stands against the far right. The specific method of intimidation may be different (i.e., public records requests), but the goal is the same.

This intimidation is as insidious now as it was more than half a century ago, because it does not matter that the targets have done nothing wrong and have nothing to hide. As we have seen, all it took was one purloined e-mail, taken out of context and distorted beyond all recognition, to manufacture the phony "Climategate" scandal that threatened the reputation of climate scientists around the world and set back climate change regulations by years.

Anyone doubting that the far right is both willing and able to destroy their reputations with such distortions needs look no farther than the devastating video "exposés" of ACORN, NPR, and Planned Parenthood. The ACORN video came first and essentially destroyed the organization. In the best traditions of McCarthyism, the right now uses any association with ACORN to discredit its opponents. They are hoping for equal success with NPR and Planned Parenthood.

People For the American Way strongly supports the Freedom of Information Act and its state and local equivalents. Opening government records to the public serves as an essential check on the abuse of government power. Indeed, the Bush Administration prepared for its long war against civil liberties in the administration's early days by essentially reversing the Clinton Administration's presumption that FOIA requests should generally be granted unless there is some reason to deny it.

Such laws exist to expand public dialogue and the dissemination of information affecting the public welfare. But the rights granted by FOIA laws, like so many others, have limitations and can be abused. A demand for information can be made not to hold government accountable and enhance public debate, but instead to harass, intimidate, suppress public debate, and keep information and opinions out of the public square. This is particularly true when it is aimed at individuals in state academic institutions.

That's what we see happening in Wisconsin and Michigan.

The public has a right to know about the activities of government entities working in its name. When a government entity has the authority to issue licenses, allocate funds, imprison people, conduct safety inspections, conduct elections – the core activities of government, all of which have substantial impacts on individuals, businesses, and groups – open records laws can help ensure that these tasks are done lawfully, without favoritism or waste. Reflecting how often members of the public request such information, many government organizations have entire offices dedicated to fulfilling these records requests.

So how often does a member of the public submit a record request for, say, the Labor Studies Center at the University of Michigan? I asked Roland Zullo, a research scientist there. He had to think about it because such requests are so rare, but he thinks the last one was about five years ago, a fishing expedition from a conservative organization essentially seeking all of their records going back to the 1950s. When the organization learned how much it would have to pay to cover the costs of its truly expansive request, it apparently backed off.

The Supreme Court has recognized the unique role that universities, including public universities, play in maintaining our liberties. As it stated in 1957, during the McCarthy era, "[t]eachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die."

That is why the American Historical Society has strongly condemned the efforts by Wisconsin Republicans to intimidate Professor Cronon:

The purpose of the state's Open Records Law is to promote informed public conversation. Historians vigorously support the freedom of information act traditions of the United States of which this law is a part. In this case, however, the law has been invoked to do the opposite: to find a pretext for discrediting a scholar who has taken a public position. This inquiry will damage, rather than promote, public conversation. It will discourage other historians (and scholars in other disciplines) employed by public institutions from speaking out as citizen-scholars in their blogs, op-ed pieces, articles, books, and other writings.

We should recognize that public universities are a unique hybrid. They are funded by the public, and we should be able to ensure that taxpayer money is being spent efficiently and legally. But their work also contributes to the robust debate over public issues without which our freedom will die. And that debate requires that we protect academic freedom and ensure that faculty have no reason to feel intimidated for asking difficult questions, conducting their research and writings, and making statements that those in power do not wish to hear.

That is the American Way.

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